Tuesday, February 26, 2008


What the press suppresses

Monday, the Lede Blog in the New York Times posted about an Alabama CBS affiliate that claimed that “a technical problem” prevented it from airing a 60 Minutes segment critical of a former governor of Alabama:

A controversy has been brewing on the Web since a “60 Minutes” segment failed to appear on a CBS affiliated TV station in Alabama last night. The report covered a bitter flashpoint between Democrats and the Bush administration: the case of Don Siegelman, a former Democratic governor of Alabama who was jailed for corruption last June.

So hot was the anticipation of the segment in left-leaning circles that one political site published an article, “Bama TIVOs at the ready for ‘60 Minutes’.” But many Alabamans did not see initial broadcast of the report, which included new allegations that Karl Rove, President Bush’s former top adviser, waged a campaign against Mr. Siegelman.

Instead, just before the segment was to start, people in the northern part of the state who were tuned in to WHNT-TV, Channel 19 in Huntsville, found this on their screen instead:

We apologize that you missed the first segment of 60 Minutes tonight featuring ‘The Prosecution of Don Siegelman.’ It was a technical problem with CBS out of New York.

About a week ago, Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor for the Times, wrote an opinion about whether the newspaper did the right thing in its coverage of some questionable medical issues:

Three articles in The Times last month raised an intriguing question: When does fairness demand that a newspaper walk down the middle in a scientific dispute, and when does responsibility demand that it take sides?

It is hardly a new question, and The Times, historically, has been slow to declare victors. In 1979, fully 15 years after a landmark federal report said that smoking was dangerous, articles in The Times still quoted Tobacco Institute spokesmen arguing that it had not been proved. By the end of the next year, when another government report called smoking the leading cause of preventable death, the newspaper made no effort to present “the other side.” The issue was settled.

In the first case, there’s some... uncertainty... about whether there was really a malfunction, or whether the segment might have been scrapped by an “editorial call” on the part of the Alabama station.

In the second set of cases, Mr Hoyt points out that the New York Times, as every other news organization, had to decide what to cover in some sort of unbiased manner... when to look at both sides of the situation.

In any case, the decision of what to cover and how to cover it is always something that a media outlet must make, and, as such, not all that might be “news” can be treated equally, whether or not an attempt is made to be “unbiased”. To be sure, scrapping one segment of 60 Minutes — if that’s what happened — or, say, choosing not to air Face the Nation because the station’s management didn’t want to give this week’s guest air time would be pretty egregious. And yet even that isn’t without precedent, as individual newspapers have chosen, for example, not to print certain installments of cartoons such as Doonesbury.

Even something as simple as the choice of where to print (or when to air) a story will affect its reception. Front page, above the fold? Below the fold? Page 2? Page 9? Split section A in two, and put the story in the middle of the second part? Stick it on page 4 of the Business section?

Or skip it entirely, don’t print it at all?

These sorts of choices go on every day, and they must. Slogans like “All the News That’s Fit to Print” notwithstanding, not all the news will fit, and not all that fits can fit on the front page. On TV, I don’t know what your local news shows, but the stuff around New York City tends to focus on shootings and fires and such, with the occasional heartwarming human-interest story. And today we’re hearing about the start of the trial of the police officers who shot Sean Bell. That’s what gets viewers; covering the machinations about the state budget might actually be more important — the shooting in Queens won’t affect my life, but the arguments between Eliot Spitzer and Joe Bruno just might — but it simply doesn’t sell.

So there’s a balance to be struck, a center-point between trying to hide things, trying to expose things, and just keeping people informed. And a balance between what folks should know, and what they want to see... and what the media want to show them.

It’s interesting, though, that we often don’t seem to learn that trying to hide things usually doesn’t work. It never did, very much, and with the Internet of today it backfires quite seriously. Someone will put the information out, and if you really did try to scuttle it with a bogus claim of technical difficulties, you’ll wind up with a lot of non-technical egg on your face.


scouter573 said...

You show great restraint. It took the NYT 15 years to realize that smoking kills. It is taking many major news outlets a century to realize that evolution is real and they don't have to give "equal time" to every oddball who believes we were created from mud. (Which, when you think of it, isn't all that different from evolution - if you leave the Lord Krishna out of it.) (Caution - this writer is humor impaired. Take parenthetical asides with a large grain of salt. -ed.) (Thanks, ed.)

To get to the point, I find it sad that we have to depend on journalists not for their journalistic abilities, but for their scientific and legal abilities. What is it that gives a bunch of journalists the ability to discern fine scientific arguments? Or coarse ones, for that matter? I suppose that I have run aground on the reef of Reality - if not the journalists, it is not entirely clear who I should call upon. Perhaps ex-sales people for football teams. (See what I said about humor impaired? -ed.) (Thanks, ed.)

Barry Leiba said...

«To get to the point, I find it sad that we have to depend on journalists not for their journalistic abilities, but for their scientific and legal abilities. What is it that gives a bunch of journalists the ability to discern fine scientific arguments?»

Well, isn't that exactly the problem: that we don't depend on them for their scientific (or medical or...) abilities? On the evolution thing, many of the journalists are among those who believe the "created from mud" story. On other stuff, the journalists just don't know that vaccines don't have anything to do with autism; that pyramids, detoxification, crystals, and coloured lights won't make you healthier; and so on.

I think that's why they often have the idea that they have to give "both sides" of the story.

Besides, fueling controversy — or pointing out more controversy than there actually is — is always good for ratings.